The United Nations' call this month for a global ban on one-use plastic bags might strike Americans as a bit extreme. But the harm from plastic litter, particularly to the world's marine ecosystems, is there for all to see.
Imagine a swirling trash deposit in the Pacific corralled by ocean currents and calculated to be twice the size of Texas. It's not part of a sci-fi movie; it already exists.
"Marine Litter: A Global Challenge," was released by the United Nations on June 8 and contained profiles of litter deposits in the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, among 10 other aquatic regions of the planet. Plastic and polystyrene products constitute 75 percent of marine litter in the northeast Atlantic, according to the document, while plastic-based items contributed the greatest proportion of marine litter in the wider Caribbean waters that include the gulf coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Plastic refuse affects marine wildlife as accumulations of trash similar to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch make aquatic ecosystems unlivable. One-use bags, like those used to tote purchases from supermarkets and other retailers, are a major part of the problem, but a sweeping ban on them would be a difficult sell in the United States. Taxing the bags, thus discouraging their use, is a more realistic solution for now.
Ireland slapped a 15-cent tax on plastic grocery bags in 2002, which was an extraordinary success. Usage of the bags dropped by 90 percent within a year, and the majority of shoppers simply made the one-time purchase of a reusable canvas bag or two, which they can store in the trunk of their cars. The tax also generates millions in revenue from shoppers who still prefer to have their groceries bagged in plastic.
While San Francisco already has banned plastic bags and Los Angeles will do so next year, it's hard to imagine that the majority of Americans are ready for such an action. But more education on the environmental damage due to such trash may change some minds. Encouraging the use of canvas totes is another positive step.
If the United States is to become a more responsible steward of nature and its resources, its people need to examine what they waste and change their habits on plastic bags and other common throwaways.